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on Livestock Guardian Dogs and small farm life…


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Correction

This is a long post, out of necessity. I need to be as clear and comprehensive as possible, so that you not only understand the reasoning behind the corrections but also how and when to implement them. Please read it as many times as necessary to feel confident about these things and feel free to comment or message me with any questions, comments or stories on this topic. 

One of the most important things to learn to do when raising and training LGDs of all ages is the art of binary feedback. Binary in this case refers to two distinct parts of information or input: positive and negative. For those who read the previous post about Skinner’s four quadrants of operant conditioning, and who want to put the binary feedback under them – what I’m referring mainly to is positive reinforcement and positive punishment. Remember, if you will, that positive in this case doesn’t mean emotionally positive, instead it means “adding”. Positive reinforcement means to add reinforcement (or reward) and positive punishment means to add punishment (or correction).

Before we start into the hows and whens of corrections, let me touch on the opposite side of the binary feedback system – that of reinforcement. The word reinforcement is often used interchangeably with rewards, which is both helpful and unhelpful. For many people, the word reward brings to mind treats or “dog cookies” and not much else. For some people it also makes them think of dogs who are demanding or out of control, unable to behave unless the owner gives them a treat. I won’t go into too much detail today on the subject of reinforcement/rewards, but I will say that there are many kinds of reinforcement/rewards available to us to use when communicating with our dogs. Essentially, anything that a dog finds satisfying, desires or otherwise will work to attain is inherently rewarding/reinforcing for them. This can be anything from food to affection to freedom.  Watch your dog and see what they seek out apart from basic needs (we don’t use shelter, water or access to minimal amounts of food as reinforcement). These are their reinforcers/rewards. Observe your pup when you bring them a small scrap of meat and toss it to them – do they perk up and pounce on it? That’s a good indicator that it’s what we call a high value item (something they really, really want). Do they seek you out for a pet or to put their paw on you (Great Pyrs, especially, are known for this)? This indicates that they enjoy affection and close connection. LGDs quite commonly find praise from their owners to be very rewarding as well – does yours turn towards you and look interested when you speak to them kindly? Listen to your dog.

HOW

As a general rule, I am a strong proponent of the 80/20 feedback system. This rule was developed for human parenting purposes and states that 80% of the input you give your children should be positive in nature, while the negative input should be restricted to 20%. It has proven itself to be very helpful and as I’ve found, equally as beneficial for raising and keeping dogs. It keeps the balance of the relationship solidly on the positive side while still being effective at stopping inappropriate behavior. This means that the bulk of the communication from human to dog should be positive, while the remainder can be negative if necessary. Personally, I work to get the 80% of positive interaction/input higher and higher over time, and it is good to note that this should happen naturally as the dog matures. It’s true that there will be times when the balance seems really off, times when dogs are testing the boundaries or just generally acting up – adolescence can be one of these times. Sometimes, during teaching phases, the negative input will feel very strong and difficult to do. As long as the dog has a fairly clear understanding of what should be done instead or guidance is given in the moment, this feeling needs to be overcome. We often make more of a mess by anthropomorphizing (placing human feels and motivations on animals) and over compensating for dogs than we do by being clear and firm with the boundaries. Allowing a small pup to behave in a way that we wouldn’t want an adolescent to, for instance, by jumping on people or chasing/mouthing stock leads to confusion on the part of the dog as they grow and the rules suddenly change. The amount of force/effort needed to correct a an older dog is typically much more than is needed with a pup. This is also why LGD pups are wired to learn well from early experiences. No one has time or energy to spend getting an adolescent in line and teaching them about being a working dog from square one. It’s frustrating, ripe for side effects and requires nerves of steel – not for the amateur.

The sooner the lessons are learned, the better. That said, lessons must be age appropriate. Tailor your expectations to the life stage of the dog; quite simply, an 8 wk old pup cannot be expected to never make a mistake. They just don’t know any better and have a low capacity for self control. Notice that I don’t say that they have NO self control, just that it’s less in both amount and length. This is also why it’s vitally important that pups grow up with good, fair mothers and in litters that help them learn the basics of impulse control. The breeder in the developed world plays a large part in the development of self control as well, especially if the pups do not have access to real world experience. Objectively assessing your pup(s) after they arrive at your home (or before!) at 8+ wks is very important – how much of this training have they received? Are they displaying an ability to handle frustration or to control their behavior when required? Do you have older dogs who can help them learn proper social language and how to grow self control? I have actually used my teacher house dogs in a controlled way to teach pups I’ve gotten in who lack age-appropriate behavior control. I would venture to say that if this is not accomplished early on, pain and frustration inevitably follow. It is one of the non-negotiables that all pups MUST learn. Learning self control is not a panacea that will ensure all LGD pups are successful, but it certainly weights the odds in that direction. Proper self control and social behavior (not playing with livestock, deferring to older LGDs through submissive behavior, soliciting peer play away from the stock or being careful around them, lowering body language when interacting with stock, not fighting picking fights over food/resources, refraining from endlessly seeking out the stimulation of play or physical connection, learning to “turn off” and relax) are vital skills for LGDs. Waiting until they mature to insist on these behaviors in any consistent way is not only counter intuitive and a complete waste of time, but also leads to selecting for dogs who cannot function as LGDs until they are grown.

The other important thing I adhere to when providing feedback of any kind is to ensure I make my feedback very distinct and clear. I have a rather calm baseline that I’ve developed extensively over time living with dogs. Most people I know who live with a lot of dogs find that this is the best way to ensure they don’t accidentally feed excited energy into their dogs’ behavior. It also has the added benefit of lending itself well to provide clear lines of voice control and body language for feedback/input. My dogs know well when I’m happy with them, my voice becomes a bit higher and more soothing in nature. My body language is inviting, open and positive – I smile so that the smile comes through in my voice. I offer my hand to them to smell, I pat their head or stroke their side. I will often hold their heads, look into their eyes and tell them just how wonderful I think they are (please do not do this with a dog you do not know well or one that has proven themselves to be aggressive with humans – they can take direct eye contact as a threat). This positive input is not the same as being excited. That is much more animated, both in voice and body language and reserved for when I’m inviting them to play or I want to motivate them – something that is typically not done around the stock or in the case of my house dogs, in the house.

This clear distinction in voice pitch and body language means that the first steps in conditioning correction are easy to achieve. LGDs especially understand the change in tone and intent of tense body language. Their social language with each other, as is the case with many working dog types, is very overt and clear-cut. A content LGD will have a low, sweeping tail, and a relaxed body that is balanced equally over their four legs. Their faces will also be relaxed, often with a hint of a wrinkled smile in the corners of their mouths and eyes. Their ears will be neither pricked forward or held back, instead, they will be floppy and relaxed. They will move neither backward or forward intently when approached. When they lie down, they will often “flop” down and sigh deeply.

An excited LGD may be so for various reasons, but their body language is fairly consistent. Their ears will be pushed forward, their eyebrows lifted up. If they are happy and excited, they will often dip into a “play bow”, their bums up in the air and their fronts in a lying down position. Their bodies will be bouncy, as will their tails, even going into a helicopter blade motion – around and around. They may vocalize with a higher pitch or whine. If they are excited due to the presence of a predator or because they are anticipating something, the balance of their weight will shift to being over their front legs. This makes them look like they are leaning forward and could leap into motion in a split second. It also serves to make them look bigger and more intimidating, which means that they use this pose when correcting each other or as a way to signal intent for conflict. In this case, their bodies will stiffen and their eyes will widen significantly. The sides of their mouths will pull back, but in a different way than if they are happy. The corners of their mouths and eyes will be very tight and hard. Depending on the severity of the intent, a growl may precede or follow these body changes. The growl may be slight and come from higher up in the throat with a significant pause to see if the offender will change their behavior or it may start low, come from the chest and rise in tone and strength. If physical conflict follows, it usually is swift and fierce; it is not uncommon for people who are not aware of the other signs to claim that the physical attack came “out of the blue”. Generally, the attacks are very loud and full bodied – slamming into each other, working to push each other over or going over the back of the other dog so they can gain the advantage of having higher purchase. It is not often that any real damage is done before the conflict is resolved, commonly it is confined to a maximum of tooth punctures. Ears and throats are favorite targets, as is the back of the neck. If a LGD goes for the throat or belly, they are very serious about their attack and fully intend to cause a lot of harm or even to kill their opponent. This is not a routine course of behavior for a LGD, but can appear when mature males or females fight for rank and territory. A dog who pretends that all is well, sidles up beside another dog (or much less commonly, a human) and then attacks with lightening speed is a dog who is not displaying any appropriate social behavior whatsoever – we call this predatory aggression, something commonly selected for with dogs bred to fight.

Living socially within a group of dogs (as is common with LGDs kept for larger operations, in breeding operations and in their countries of origin) and with prey animals requires a high level of social competency. Two sets of interactive behavior are required – one with their charges and one with their fellow working dogs. There is a lot of overlap, however and the one consistent factor is the ability to read tone and body language appropriately. We can harness this ability to read tone and body language and to learn from single events when correcting them effectively. We are not trying to replicate LGD behavior when we do so (as some may claim), but we are doing our best to speak their language in order to communicate clearly with them. LGDs typically start out their corrections with plenty of warning, which means that the one being corrected has a lot of time to change their behavior before things escalate. This is especially true with very young pups, who are given what we call a “puppy pass” by older LGDs for much of their overly enthusiastic behavior. They will be corrected for going too far, though.

The correction will typically start low and slow and “ratchet” up if the pup doesn’t listen (this is the warning system). Depending on the dog, the start could be very quiet, almost under their breath.  Most pups only need things to escalate once or twice before they learn that the early warning signs will be followed by physical correction. Typically this portion culminates in a loud roar alongside a leap over top of the pup, standing over them. Often times this is combined with the older dog placing their mouth directly and widely over the muzzle of the pup and holding it to the ground. The pup is meant to hold still and “give” to their elder. Quite often, the older LGD will not remove themselves from the pup or allow them to get up until they are satisfied that enough submissive behavior has been displayed and that the message is solidly received. Unlike the mythical “alpha rolling” technique, the correction is wholly controlled by the one being corrected. They hold themselves to the ground (no LGD lies on another to keep them down) and either offer appropriate apologetic behavior or don’t. If they don’t, as is sometimes the case when the dog being corrected is an adolescent or young adult, the older dog will repeat their attack until they do.  It is important to know that as young pups mature, the tolerance portion or “puppy pass” for their silly or excited behavior disappears. If it doesn’t, it is quite likely that the older LGD isn’t up for the job of sole disciplinarian or needs some guidance.

It is also very important to understand that LGDs have a system of fairness for corrections. Small infractions result in smaller corrections or a longer warning phase. Large, serious infractions result in no or a very short warning phase. The dogs inherently understand this from the time they are little, which is why it does not destroy relationships between dogs or even with humans when it’s applied. Random, very harsh corrections as some people are fond of doing with their dogs (often also inappropriate for life stages) result in a confused dog who loses trust in their leader. This is what people talk about most when they talk about corrections going awry. Using corrections/negative feedback as the bulk of the interactions with your LGD (flipping the 80/20 rule around, for instance) will also result in a frustrated dog who learns that humans are difficult to please. The working partnership requires that we teach with benevolence – and correcting appropriately is a part of that kindness.

When we humans correct, we must have in our minds what the “minor” infractions are, what the “major” ones are and what life stage our dogs are in. We must construct the environment for as much success as possible (don’t put dogs in no win situations with stock), feed our dogs well and care well for their health. We must ensure they know where we want them to be (don’t have the dog on your bed one night and in with the stock the next, don’t move them randomly from one stock group to another) and what their jobs are. If you want them in with stock when mature, have them in with stock from a young age. This doesn’t mean they can’t be kept separate at times, but ensure that they understand why it is or at least keep it short and work it out to integrate them back in a reasonable period of time. The corrections should start in the way that an LGD elder would do, low and slow for minor infractions and high and swift for large ones. The amount of force and effort required will be determined by the dog themselves – some give easily to a verbal correction (a sharp, low tone with an angry inflection) such as “NO” or “HEY” or “UH” while others require a higher level just to initially acknowledge you. The easiest way to condition this tone is to ensure that you always use the same one, in the same tone (vary in intensity for intent) and follow with body language. Shift your body forward in the upper torso (lean forward) and step into the pup while saying it or immediately after. Raise your eyebrows and look directly at them. If the pup doesn’t stop what they are doing or give ground to you, narrow your eyes and tense your mouth/facial expression. Increase the volume of your chosen correction word/sound and make it deeper. Step towards them. If this doesn’t result in the desired behavior, stride toward the pup and physically stop them/remove them. Express your disapproval of their choice not to listen by shaking your head at them and muttering disapproving words under your breath. If they immediately return to the behavior, remove them without a word and either place them in a pen, on a chain or outside the environment for a short period. Remember that a short time can feel like a very long time to a small pup or adolescent.

Alternately, if it’s an inanimate object they are being inappropriate with, remove it from them. Put it where they can’t access it, or block access to it with your body. Cross your arms, plant your feet solidly and lean forward with the aforementioned facial expression and tone if the pup doesn’t sit back or leave. This is helpful for situations such as where pups are beginning to refuse stock access to water or food. If they try to go around you, move in front of them. If they keep trying, drive them off with large arm motions and by increasing your tone to a yell. In a pinch, and when you can’t get to a dog in time to stop a behavior, throw something beside them that makes a noise or bang on the bottom of a pail to get their attention. Do not hit the dog with the object or with anything else, including your hand.

When the pup shows that they are no longer trying to repeat the behavior, when they sit/lie back on the ground, or when they show other submissive behavior such as curving their bodies around to you in a semi circle, lift one front paw toward you cautiously, lick their lips, look toward the ground – relent. Relax your body language. Soften your facial expression and raise the tone of your voice back to the calm middle ground. If you had a hard time getting through to them about the behavior or you were unable to, you can choose not to speak to them or acknowledge them at all for a while. This sort of social isolation is very effective with LGDs. If you’ve cultivated a bond with them based on companionship and positive reinforcement, they will take your refusal to acknowledge them very seriously.  Forgive them by using your friendly body language and tone – very quickly for young pups and within a reasonable amount of time for older dogs. Don’t be surprise that if, when you choose to interact with them again, they respond with great enthusiasm. Falling out of favor is a very strong correction for many LGDs – and often is enough to stop them from repeating the behavior again.

Once a pup knows that you will follow through from the starting point of tone to stepping into them, removing them or blocking them – and especially with removing your affection, they will begin to respond quickly and well to the tone of your voice and your verbal correction word/sound. This may require a few times of following through and refreshers as they go through adolescence, but it will make your life much easier overall. When you can stop behavior from a pup or dog with a word from the house or across the yard, it lowers your work load and keeps them more reliable. If you are in closer proximity to them, start by speaking as softly and coolly as possible (don’t make it personal), allowing your facial expressions and body language to do the work of convincing them of your seriousness. Eventually this will result in being able to just speak your correction word/sound in a soft tone without any of the rest.

Some infractions and just some dogs in general, require harsher corrections. This is partly because the nature of the behavior is so dangerous (or could become extremely dangerous over time), but also partly because the harshness of the correction tells the dog that this behavior will never be tolerated. There is never a time, for example, that chasing stock is acceptable. Some people will tell you that any “inappropriate” glance at stock should be corrected in this way, but I strongly disagree. Others will tell you that every behavior should be treated equally, with the same rote low level corrections, but I equally disagree with that. Both approaches have a high likelihood of failure. How do you know if your corrections are too harsh or are ineffective? That is easily sorted out. Is the behavior disappearing? Then you’re being effective. Does your dog seem confused or frustrated or are they starting to avoid you entirely or suck up to you obsessively? Then you are being too unfair and too harsh. The dog will always tell you.

Examples of harsh, higher level corrections are scruffing (grabbing the skin on either side of the dog’s face and getting very loud and angry in their face), yanking swiftly and strongly on a prong or slip collar (I very much prefer the prong for this if it’s used), using stim or vibrate on an e collar (use a reliable, very multi-level collar and know what level your dog finds aversive – LGDs typically hate vibrate more than stim as vibrate can actually send them into a panic-  they will respond well to very low levels of stim), pushing them over onto their side and refusing to allow them up (do not lie on them, that can also cause them to panic and it is not well understood by dogs) until they “give”, isolating them by placing them in a pen or on a line alone for long periods, and getting very loud and angry with them, driving them back over a large area or up against a vertical object.

I cannot emphasize the following enough:

NO HIGH LEVEL OF CORRECTION SHOULD BE DONE WITH A DOG WHERE THERE IS NO BOND DEVELOPED BETWEEN HUMAN AND DOG. NO HIGH LEVEL OF CORRECTION SHOULD BE DONE WITH A DOG WHO HAS DISPLAYED HUMAN AGGRESSION SUCH AS GROWLING, LUNGING OR BITING. SEEK OUT PROFESSIONAL, LGD EXPERIENCED HELP FOR SUCH AGGRESSIVE DOGS.

The only exception to the second warning, that of dogs who have displayed aggression toward humans, is to do with young pups. Serious corrections for these pups can make the difference between life and death, provided they are done fairly, swiftly, and they are able to make amends afterwards. This is not an exaggeration.

ALL HIGH LEVEL CORRECTIONS MUST BE DONE WHEN THE BEHAVIOR IS HAPPENING OR IMMEDIATELY AFTERWARDS. THERE IS NO BENEFIT TO HIGH LEVEL CORRECTIONS LONG AFTER THE FACT, AND THERE IS GREAT POTENTIAL FOR HARM IN DOING SO. DOGS DO NOT HAVE THE REASONING ABILITY NEEDED TO UNDERSTAND DELAYED CONSEQUENCES.

This is also why penning or isolating for long periods of time doesn’t work as some people claim it does.

Finally, for minor infractions, remember that pups and dogs who are learning will make mistakes. Pups will make more of them, simply because their memories can be short, their self control easily depleted and their desires very strong. They are the mental equivalent of small children – and we would not expect them to do high level reasoning or sit through a board meeting without something to amuse them. Luckily for us, pups mature much more quickly than human children do, so the requirements can keep pace on an accelerated schedule. Pups over 4 months of age should be able to be in with stock (the exception may be with chickens) for long periods without major issues. They may regress at certain times as they mature (9 months and 18 months are particular hotspots), but reminders should get them back on track.

Keeping this all in mind, start from low on the scale and ratchet up over again when a young pup displays a minor infraction, even if you just corrected for that behavior this morning and yesterday. If it was just a few moments ago, consider being more effective and using management more – separate and supervise for short periods perhaps. As they get older, start a little higher on the scale and consider a harsher correction if the behavior hasn’t fallen out of their repertoire. Again, ensure that they have their basic needs met – if that doesn’t happen, it will increase the likelihood of inappropriate behavior.

Sometimes, high levels of correction will require “set-ups”. By that, I mean, setting up interactions and the environment so that the behavior will appear. Correcting a pup for chasing stock will require them to be in close proximity to that stock. Consider doing this for behaviors that you don’t see in routine life, but you see evidence of (dead poultry, frazzled stock, pulled wool, etc). It is also helpful when training to “hot” or electric wire fences – ensuring the dog gets a good zap by tying food to the wire is an example of this. The best way to handle these things is directly head on. Don’t let time pass without addressing it, especially if you see continual evidence of the behavior.

WHEN

These are lists of minor and major infractions that in my opinion require correction. These lists are not by any means exhaustive, but they are some of the most common inappropriate behaviors.

Minor:

  • jumping up to greet people/jumping on people
  • being pushy at feeding time
  • demanding constant attention
  • beginning to guard the stock’s food, shelter or water from them
  • soliciting play from stock
  • licking stock intently
  • staring hard at stock
  • pushing into stock
  • being rowdy around stock
  • picking a fight with another pup around stock
  • refusing to wait at gates after being taught how to
  • pushing in at the home door
  • refusing to wait calmly when tied for short times
  • breaking out of a pen
  • running away (should not be corrected at all if recall has not been taught)

Major:

  • chasing stock (of any kind)
  • mouthing (placing their mouths on) the stock
  • biting the stock
  • mounting the stock
  • not allowing an individual or small group of stock freedom of movement
  • escaping the pasture fence to roam or muck around (my Ivy has escaped the pasture to come to the house and tell me of an injured or sick animal)
  • knocking a person or stock over
  • being enthusiastic around stock that leads to injury or the potential for injury
  • obsessively harassing elderly or weaker LGDs
  • “stealing” babies from mothers aka “over-mothering” (do not put immature dogs in with birthing mothers)
  • attacking stock who show curiosity over their food items
  • attacking other dogs for their food items
  • responding to appropriate corrections from stock by becoming angry and coming back at them


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LGD Puppy Skills/Manners Exercises

This post goes hand in hand with the series on Puppy Raising. These are exercises that can be executed in different ways, but I cannot overemphasize how important it is to train young pups using a positive and rewarding approach. There is enough adversity in the exercises themselves to be challenging for pups without adding any extra. We also always want to preserve the positive association with people and handling whenever possible.

Jennifer Sider Gru Mitch

Photo credit: Jennifer Sider – Gru and Mitch

These skills are non negotiable in my opinion. They set the basis for a positive relationship between dog and owner as well as the development of self control. When dogs learn early that there are fair rules to follow and that by following those rules, they can get what they want/need, it forms the foundation for the development of a confident, stable dog who trusts their owner. Just like children, dogs do best within a structure, with fair rules. Also just like children, they do best when they understand those rules well and the rules are tailored to their cognitive abilities. Remember that some puppies, just like some children, will push the boundaries harder and more often than others. Setting the rules requires being willing and able to enforce them when necessary, again with a good understanding of cognitive ability. A young pup won’t be able to meet high standards for behavior like an older pup will.

For information purposes, “backward motion” is what we see when a dog/pup is about to sit. All of their energy is moving them backward, away from you. “Forward motion” is the opposite, what we see when a dog is about to run after something or go through a door.

The training exercises should be done away from stock unless otherwise indicated. Rewarding with food should be done with the pup’s regular ration of kibble (use freeze dried meat for raw fed or bits of hot dog) if at all possible; for highly stressful situations consider using something very tasty like roast beef or chicken.

Manda

Photo credit: Vokterhund Kennel, CAS pup

LGD Puppy Raising Exercises

  • Make it a routine practice to handle feet, toes, ears, run your hands over all parts of their body, look in their mouths. Start slowly and gently for pups who seem disturbed by what you are doing. Do not overdo it and release the pup when they accept the handling. Praise calmly.
  • Introduce to strange children, adults, people with different clothing and hats, people of different skin color, shapes, sizes, abilities.
  • Introduce to different flooring, different obstacles (logs on the ground, gravel, rocks, tall grass, etc.). Encourage reluctant pups but allow for independent problem solving. Do not coddle.
  • Train or at the very least, expose to a crate. Crate training is easier if pups are given something very yummy to chew on such as a stuffed kong or flat rolled rawhide.
  • Place a flat (regular) collar on the pup. Wait until they are no longer bothered by the feeling of wearing a collar before going to the next step.
  • Attach and allow to drag a leash/light long line in an area of a building or on the property where they are comfortable.
  • Have pup drag a leash (or preferably a longer line/rope) and then pick it up, let it down.
  • Pick up leash and apply slight pressure, calling the pup by name or with a sound, when they turn to you, release the leash and praise.
  • Next time, pick it up, apply pressure (slight and steady, then increasing – do not yank), turn and call the pup, then take a few steps with them going in the direction of the pressure when they respond, drop leash and praise/play.
  • Follow by shortening the leash/line, but do not hold tight. Allow for slack in the line unless applying pressure to change direction or encourage a reticent pup to move forward. Do several changes in direction before releasing. Rewarding with food is appropriate if helpful, but do not do around stock.
  • Tie the pup for a brief period of time. Do not untie until relaxed.
  • Restrain the pup by hand briefly and take note of reaction. This gives you information about what kind of pup they are. Pups can be afraid of restraint, so do not assume struggling or getting upset is an indicator of issues with dominance.
  • Take note of who is bossy in the litter and who is not, and whether mom will correct the pups for pushy behavior. Make a plan to encourage timid pups and to teach bold pups to wait.
  • Practice getting in and out of a vehicle. Reward and praise heavily.
  • Take pups on a fun car ride (not to the vet), expose them to sights and sounds off the farm/homestead.
  • Take pups to the veterinary clinic. Ensure as much positivity as possible. This will be easier to do if pups are already used to being handled and restrained.
  • Feed in both separate and areas together out of individual dishes, ensuring fairness. Fairness means no stealing, no matter how “nicely” and submissively it’s done.
  • Ask pup to sit by raising food dish above their heads before feeding.
  • Do not give pups what they ask for when they ask for it – whether it’s food or attention, going through a gate (except if it is for the purposes of relieving themselves) – instead, give it to them when they show at first slight and then more patience/backward motion (settling).
  • Do not greet the pups with high amounts of enthusiasm around stock, children, people of different physical abilities or the elderly.
  • Show affection mainly after the pups have settled and have “four on the floor”. This means that all paws are in contact with the ground. This does not mean that you cannot interact with pups when they are excited and/or playing (see bullet point directly above for exceptions to this), but share affection most often when pups are displaying “four on the floor”. This means making a point of seeking out pups who aren’t naturally pestering for your attention. Remove attention and/or help to settle if the pup becomes too excited to remain in contact with the floor/ground. This will mean split seconds of patience/backward motion for enthusiastic pups. Build from the split second to longer periods in subsequent sessions.
  • Show stock affection and focus first, then pups. Do not give a pup attention who puts themselves between you and the stock when you are paying attention to stock. Place them to the side and when they relax, calmly praise. Physically block if necessary, and only show affection when you are done interacting with the stock and only if the pup is also being calm with backward motion. The same rules apply to interacting with children. All enthusiastic play/interaction should take place away from the stock/children.
  • Feed each pup some kibble in sequence by hand. Ask for some sign of engagement (looking you in the eye, responding to a sound) before giving the pup their piece. Physically block other pups or dogs from trying to take food out of turn.
  • Place pup in stall or pen and shut door briefly. When they are quiet, open the door and praise, allow them to exit. See comment above (regarding affection) about rewarding split second patience for pups who struggle with self control.
  • Once the pup is sitting reliably for their food dish (they should be able to sit until the food is on the ground), use the raising hand motion to ask them to sit before allowing them over thresholds (gates, doors). As they mature, they should wait for you to indicate whether to go in front of you or wait for you to enter/exit. Treats can be used to encourage this behavior but should only be delivered outside of the stock enclosures or at the very least, away from the stock.
  • Give pup(s) a bath. This may not be appropriate in the coldest of weather, but combined with a bit of crate training or confinement work (can be done together in a room) it can be a good exercise even then. Ensure they are well dried before returning outdoors in cold weather. Reward heavily with food/treats during this time.
gp michelle marie

Photo credit: Michelle Marie – GP litter

The only deviation from reward based methods I suggest is to begin to form the basis for appropriate corrections. Those will follow in an upcoming post.


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Selecting, raising training LGD pups, Part 2

(the first part of this series can be found here)

2. Make a plan (or more accurately, a loose framework).

Manda 2 months intro to horse

Photo credit: Vokterhund Kennel – CAS pup with horse

 

Making a plan, or more accurately, a loose framework for how to approach your pup(s) is a crucial step towards success. Now, I am the first to admit that I hate making concrete, set-in-stone plans about anything, let alone living beings. I know that something will come along to throw a wrench into those plans – be it a strange fear stage, complications with the stock or something that comes up in my life. I have a very busy life outside of farming and working with dogs that requires me to be flexible and to think on my feet. So, chiseling out black and white plans doesn’t work for me – and to be perfectly honest, it has never worked for me when it comes to keeping animals. I do, however, always need to know where I am going and have a general idea of steps to get there.

With that in mind, it’s important to look at what your end goal is for your pup(s). Do you intend for them to be a full time LGD who stays in one area with one type of stock? Do you want stock to move from one area to another, but also have the dog(s) go with them? Will you move the dog(s) from one area to another to guard different areas/types of stock? Do you expect your dog(s) to always stay behind fences with the stock or are you happy to have them interact with you/your family on the yard? Will you invite them into the house? There is no “one-size-fits-all” goal here. The only hard and fast rule is to set out showing the pup(s) what you want for them as the end goal and sticking with it long enough that they accept it as theirs.

In other words, if you want the pup(s) to stay behind fences 24/7 with stock as adults, do not start them out sleeping on your porch or on your bed. If you take a single pup, and even if you are raising more than one, this can mean that you have to deal with days of fighting to escape confinement, especially at night. This can mean that the pup(s) will cry for you to stay with them. You will have to be strong and refuse to bring them up to the house. You must establish the ground rules straight away, in as clear and kind a way as possible. There is enough time after they have accepted these expectations to do other things with them, such as inviting them to the house for a visit.

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Photo credit: Ingham Farms – baby Titus and Nubian goat

You must, no matter what, provide safety for the pup(s). Do not allow them to wander uninhibited.  If you are allowing for them to stay in with stock, ensure the stock is safe for the pup and conversely that they are safe FROM them. If you have mothers with babies, know that they will be overly sensitive to an inquisitive pup and may well harm them over innocent curiosity. If you have a bold pup, know that they can harm young or small stock easily. Match your stock to the nature and size of the pup. Provide an area for the pup to escape to, ideally a small pen or stall with an opening that only the pup can access. Learning to retreat from danger or when feeling overwhelmed is vital for any pup to feel like they have control over their environment and what is happening to them. This control is the basis for learning to regulate their emotions, or develop self control. Don’t put your pup(s) in situations where they cannot escape to keep themselves safe.

Conversely, some pups are too bold and active for their own good when it comes to being in with stock. These are the pups who need more active guidance from both humans and the stock they are learning on. Ideally, with older mentor LGDs to learn from, these pups will be corrected when they get out of line as well as learn appropriately from watching and interacting with them. That said, not all older LGDs have interest in correcting a rambunctious pup. One older LGD will have trouble keeping two pups in line as well. Restricting these pups to strict supervision for the early learning stages and making sure that corrections are swift and effective works well.

As with all pup raising, loving encouragement should be part and parcel of any approach. Timid, highly responsive, cautious and laid-back pups will do best with a high amount of encouragement. These pups are the equivalent to the child who beams over getting high marks or gold stars from their teachers. They may need discipline, but not very often, and they are keen to get things right. Bold, risk taking pups who charge into situations and push between you and the stock (yes, this can look like submission – groveling, flipping on to their back – too) need a different approach. They are like the children who test limits and boundaries on a regular basis to see where they stand. Both types appreciate clear communication, but the latter will require and appreciate when you enforce the boundaries swiftly and effectively. The former will require you to be cautious about your use of correction and be most responsive to verbal corrections as well as brief periods of social isolation. Neither type is “better” – and in fact, the tougher, more challenging pups typically mature into very strong, capable guardians when given the training they need.

3. Socialize, respecting stages.

Socializing (exposing animals to various new sights, sounds, experiences) LGDs after they leave their mom is a tricky business. Not only do some people firmly believe that very little socialization is required for a good LGD but if it is done incorrectly, can result in confusion for the dog and risk for humans. An understanding of the stages of puppy life is very helpful here.

Early socialization is the ideal way to produce a balanced, stable dog who is not afraid of novelty. Weeks 4-7 are when a pup’s brain is akin to a sponge, soaking up information about their world in a way that is unaffected by fear.  Unfortunately, the breeders who recognize and provide this kind of socialization are few and far between. This leaves the new owners of pup(s) with the task of negotiating socialization along with managing the onset of fear in the pup(s). The development of fear is necessary for survival in terms of risk assessment (have you ever seen a person or animal who lack risk assessment skills? They have to be protected from themselves more often than not) but it also makes introduction to new things a bit complicated. This is especially true for dogs who tend towards single-event learning (learning a lesson from one experience) like our LGDs.

In general, the more pups are exposed to when very young, the more they will be able to make appropriate, informed decisions when they are older. People who keep LGDs in more populated areas will need to be concerned about this more seriously than those who intend to keep them in remote areas. That said, we cannot always predict if a dog will need to find a new home eventually or if we will need to move, so socialization is never a wasted endeavor.

The subject of early socialization and how it pertains to LGDs specifically could take up an entire post in and of itself (which should be the case, now that I think about it), so I will just touch on some things to ensure are on the list and a couple of things to keep in mind. Do socialize to: kids, other dogs, sights and sounds of the city, cars (both inside and out), cats, the veterinary office, the house, a crate, people with hats and bundled up for winter, people of different skin color, sizes and shapes than yourselves.

Remember, socialization helps dogs recognize that what is different is not necessarily also threatening, so keep that in mind while doing it. If a pup shows a bad reaction to something new, try not to feed into it. Pause all activity and wait for the pup to recover. If it seems to be an extreme reaction, note this as an area that will need further work or to be revisited when the pup is feeling more confident. Keep things light, work at your pup’s pace, and don’t force interaction. It is enough for your pup to observe, to be curious at their own pace and to receive praise and food from you. Introducing food given by strangers is something I don’t endorse, at any stage. Affection should be only given by strangers if sought out by the pup.

4. Teach basic dog skills and manners.

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Photo credit: JJ Taylor – pup with father

Again, in a perfect world, this part would start at the breeder’s (can we be a little less concerned about whether someone breeds registered dogs or dogs of a certain color and a little more concerned about how much appropriate work they do with their dogs/pups?!?) and your job would just be to continue/maintain it. Pups would come to their new homes knowing what to do when restrained, how to give to pressure, that collars and leashes are part of normal life, that confinement isn’t forever, that sharing with other dogs is good, that being rough with humans doesn’t get you to a fun place, that people can be trusted, that food requires a bit of patience and that frustration can be managed. With breeders opting to keep LGD pups to 12 weeks now more and more, these goals should be part and parcel of the process. These outcomes can be accomplished through a set of exercises that can be replicated when the dog comes to their new home. That said, there are so many other things going on during that time that it can make it difficult to fit into the schedule. It’s also an irrefutable fact that lessons learned very early in a pup’s life are easier to retain over time.

Jennifer Sider pup Gru

Photo credit: Jennifer Sider – Gru

 

Just like with #2, it is imperative that you start out on the foot you intend to continue with over time. Do not allow inappropriate behavior (jumping up on to people, being overly enthusiastic with children, diving into a food bowl before it hits the ground, charging through gates, allowing teeth on skin, etc.) if you don’t intend for those things to continue over time. I see far too many people who continually make excuses for their small pups (“But he’s so little and cute!”, “She doesn’t mean anything by it!”) and then they turn around one day to find that that pup is no longer so small or so cute and actually has become quite the hazard. The poor pup doesn’t understand why his people are upset. He’s just doing what he’s always been allowed/encouraged to do.

I’ve detailed the exercises in a separate post. There are different ways of accomplishing the end goal of learning the above-mentioned skills, but I strongly, strongly suggest teaching them with mainly positive methods. This will again require restraint and patience. There is a time and place for more forceful methods, but it’s generally not when teaching foundation behaviors in a young pup.

 

 

 

 


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Your methods suck.

I’m going to take a moment away from working on the puppy series to address an burgeoning problem in the world of LGDs. I predicted this was coming a while ago, and just like most predictions I’ve made in the dog world, I’m sad to see it come true. Truth be told, I’m not only sad, but I’m also incredibly angry. I’m tired of watching egotistical asshats causing such distress in dogs, causing them to wash out, causing neuroses, fueling the fires of frustration in owners and ultimately causing the dogs to have to break bonds with their families or worse, lose their lives.

Let me attempt to explain.

There is a strong faction of LGD fanciers who are currently on the bandwagon of raising pups utilizing what I call the “contain, hover, avoid and praise” method. I don’t know where this method came from, but I suspect it was from someone who could not trust their dogs for whatever reason. It involves a combination of high levels of containment (typically in a pen), leash work, avoidance and positive reinforcement. These people, most widely popular on Facebook for their firm beliefs in themselves and their abilities, perpetuate the idea that this is the ONLY way to raise a LGD pup to successful working status. They employ this advice when addressing dogs who live alone, but also with pups being introduced to other LGDs. They continue to push this agenda regardless of the feedback that it isn’t working for a lot of dogs. They continue to push, regardless of how much unfeasible work this causes for people and how inappropriate it is to be so unclear with dogs about the nature of their jobs. They continue on, throwing people out of the conversation who dare to say that keeping the social LGD isolated like this causes them harm. They keep saying this, over and over, on some of the largest LGD advice groups out there. They can, because they run them.

I’m so angry about this that it’s hard for me to think straight and say these things in a professional way. All I want to do is swear uncontrollably and yell at the top of my lungs until these people listen.

STOP IT!!! STOP OVER CONTAINING THESE DOGS! STOP TELLING PEOPLE THAT CORRECTING DOGS EFFECTIVELY IS WRONG! STOP TELLING THEM THAT KEEPING LGDs ALONE AND ISOLATED IS JUST FINE! STOP SAYING THAT IF A PUP IS ANYTHING MORE THAN A LUMP ON THE GROUND, THEY DON’T HAVE THE RIGHT INSTINCTS!

STOP SAYING THINGS YOU HAVE NO INTENTION OF BEING ACCOUNTABLE FOR.

STOP MISLEADING PEOPLE TO BELIEVE THAT IF THEY DON’T DO THE THINGS YOU SAY, THEY ARE ABUSIVE AND UNCARING OWNERS.

Guess what happens when you follow this contain, leash, avoid, over-react cycle? Sometimes the dogs do just fine. It’s a trait of dogs the world over that they manage to do well despite our fumbling attempts at guidance and the inappropriate ways in which we keep them. The brilliance of the human/canine coexistence, proven historically over and over, is that the canine is able to forgive our shortcomings and still grow into themselves, becoming what we need. We are far less able or willing to bridge that gap for them, resulting in a species that has been selected to adjust their behavior for us, anticipating what we need and ensuring their basic needs are met. In the case of working LGDs, their inherent needs (apart from food, water and shelter) are to be in partnership, to learn from a leader, to bond socially and to protect.

How much do we care about these dogs? So much so that we stick them away at the first sign of inappropriate behavior? So much so that we refuse to help them learn self control on the job, in with their beloved charges, in the company of other LGDs? So much so that we show them a working routine day in and day out that we do not intend for them to stick to eventually? So much that we tell them they need to behave when we show up but not on their own until they are fully mature?  Not only is that pedantic, it’s incredibly infantilizing – offensive.

In canine behavioral rehabilitation, there are two vital pieces we focus most on. One is the forward and backward motion of the dog, and the other is instilling self control and resilience. The first half of the latter is what is being undermined by the aforementioned LGD “experts”. Self control is THE most important piece that determines whether a dog will behave appropriately and be able to be in partnership with humans. Secondary to that is discrimination, but that is for another day.

Instilling self control starts early in a dog’s life. Pups learn to wait their turn, to not bite hard when playing (or the play stops), to inhibit reactions/actions so they are not disciplined by mom and to wean when they don’t want to. A good mother instills begins the installation of self control in a pup by the judicious use of tough love. A recent study found that the success of guide dog pups revolved around the willingness of the mother dog to discipline and test her pups. This teaches them their innate ability to delay gratification, handle new situations, to problem solve and to withstand adversity. Just as in humans, these lessons are invaluable to the process of developing resiliency and self control into adulthood. All lessons must be tailored to the developmental stage of the youngster, but mothers instinctively understand this. It’s us humans who struggle to keep pace through the various stages. It’s much easier to contain and isolate – but these  dogs are not inanimate objects that will sit unchanged on the shelf until we have time for them.

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Sitting behind a fence alone, watching stock, is not going to provide the developing LGD with the teaching and life skills they need. No one does this in their countries of origin – it would be unconscionable. Keeping pups isolated in this way would be tantamount to abuse. Pups need each other, their canine pack and their people. That is not to say that we can’t use containment judiciously here, given that we don’t have the same communal way of living with our dogs that they have historically experienced. Every dog will respond to this in individual ways, however.  They must be watched for signs of discomfort, psychological distress and neuroses. They must be given adequate free time to romp and play and just generally be goofy pups. They need to time to play with us and with others of their kind. Much valuable information is given to them during these times.  They need time to just be, apart from being contained. They need to be able to screw up and learn from their mistakes. Learning on the job and within a social order are both vital pieces of the success of a content LGD.

Quite often, isolation will bring about the very behaviors people claim it will address! A bored, lonely pup will need an outlet for their frustrated energies. They will attempt to engage the stock, their only social group, to meet their needs. Back to confinement they go! They will attempt to escape the confinement to satisfy their need to explore and gather information about their environment. They will work hard to get away from the intense boredom of the pen. LGDs need to freely interact with their environment to learn, and confinement with alternating periods of uber control by a human with a leash will not allow them that learning experience. Frustration and hyperactivity, even aggression will follow as natural consequences of the continued denial of their needs.

How is it appropriate to show a pup a certain routine for their lives that consists of being in a pen, walked on a leash, hovered over, unable to make mistakes and get clear binary (what’s good, what’s bad) direction, and then tell them months or years later that oh, this isn’t actually what we wanted you to do!?! If the pup decides on their own that their job is actually to be with the stock or in the field and not in the pen when unsupervised, then the pen is reinforced and they are treated like they’ve done something wrong. If they do do something inappropriate like chase or mouth stock, or heaven forbid STARE at them, the pups are put in a “time out” after perhaps being tackled to the ground or dragged around on the leash. If there is one thing I absolutely cannot stand outside of an emergency, it’s dragging a dog around on a leash/line. What is a “time out” meant to teach a dog? Are these children we can talk to about their behavior afterwards? Outside of very short periods of time meant to prove that I was highly offended by behavior from a dog, I never use a pen for such a thing. The pen should be a safe place they enjoy being in; the same applies to a tether, which is much more commonly used in their countries of origin. This requires judicious use, not routine use. In fact, I go out of my way to ensure that I don’t do the same thing in this respect day after day. Adult LGDs need to be able to deal with changing circumstances and should never get the idea that their lives consist only of an outdoor version of “crate and rotate”. (Link to a video of Titus in his pen/kennel – look at his lovely self control!; below are pictures of Titus in various situations and learning different things in the past 3.5 months here)

Years ago, I bought my first kennel club registered LGD. She happened to be a Maremma, and she was a fuzzy little teddy bear with a tornado of a personality. She was cute beyond reason and pushy beyond belief and I adored her more than I could have thought possible. I spoke with the breeder several times before I went to pick her up and even though I missed a number of red flags that this woman didn’t know what she was doing, I was still in the mindset that everyone else knew better about these dogs than I could (thank you, LGD mythology). I asked to see the little fluff ball’s mother, upon which I was led to a 4 ft tall small pen in the breeder’s barn. There were heavy things piled on the top of the lid of the pen. Inside there was a young, wiggly, lanky insanely white Maremma bitch. She looked at me with pleading eyes. She could hardly contain herself, moving her body around in frantic ways. The breeder explained that she had serious doubts about the ability of this dog to be a LGD given how busy she was, how she high needs for interaction. She didn’t know what else to do with her, this woman said, other than to put her in the pen and keep her there. She hoped this dog would outgrow her “bad” behavior. God, do I wish I knew then what I know now. I wish I’d been able to help and not had to leave the farm saddened beyond belief for that lost, misunderstood girl. The pup I held in my arms that day went on to have similar challenges, and unfortunately since I followed a similar (the containment routine wasn’t such popular advice then) set of largely ineffective training methods, the process to get her where she needed to be took a long time and was full of heartache for both of us.

I will never be quiet on this front or any other that is setting people and dogs for failure. I never want to have to leave a farm again or raise a pup without having the necessary tools to help or fix what is happening. Further, I don’t want to have to hold the hand of someone who has been led down the garden path by shitty advice only to find that they’ve not been given all of the information they needed – and what’s more, they’ve been pressured not to seek it. I never want to hear from someone that they believe their LGD is part herding dog (yes, this is what people are being told!) because it’s busy and has significant exercise needs. I don’t want to have to cry late at night any more because I’ve had to hold a dog while they are euthanized because they’re out of control and no one can safely reach them any more.

I’m angry. I’m sad. I want it to stop, or at the very least, I want more people to wake up and listen to their guts before things get bad. If all else fails, share this. Maybe it will give someone what they need in time to save just one dog, keep them working, keep them with their families. Thank you.

 

P.S. The only thing that comes out of the horrible advice these people are giving about raising LGDs is that we continue to select for dogs of only one temperament/character profile. This is becoming a serious issue as the dogs who accept such treatment without rebelling and/or becoming neurotic are very passive, yard-statue types. The rest are washed out as LGDs, killed or otherwise do not go on to work and, perhaps more importantly, contribute to our waning gene pool. These are not the dogs we need to help us with the heightened number of apex predators we are dealing with more and more. LGDs are varied: they range in approach, bonding preferences, need for human interaction, hyperactivity, predilection for independence, ability to deal with different predators. If anyone tells you differently, run, don’t walk away.

 

 

 

 


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Selecting, raising and training LGD pups, Part 1

This begins a series of posts on puppy raising and selection that I believe is overdue for both owners and breeders. I find most information on this subject to be lacking in substance, with very few exceptions. Some is downright inappropriate, touting the best forgotten Coppinger methods or encouraging people to raise these dogs as you would the smallest of house pets.

I’ve written here before about the inherent problems with the old Coppinger-style method of LGD puppy rearing. It bears repeating that Ray Coppinger, while responsible for the proliferation of the working LGD in North America, also set all LGD owners off on the wrong foot by insisting that all pups are raised “hands off”, a term used to refer to methods of raising pups by touching them and interfering with them as little as possible. He is single handedly responsible for most of the problems we have here with LGDs now, both through inappropriate breeding selection criteria and the inability to meet their needs. I would go so far as to say that anyone providing guidance on raising LGDs who does not also acknowledge how Coppinger harmed the evolution of the North American LGD should not be trusted.

On to pup handling and training.

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Unfortunately, we rarely have control over the first weeks of a pup’s life unless we have whelped them ourselves, so most of the advice contained herein will be focused on what to do after 8 wks of age. That is not to say that there isn’t value in pressuring breeders to do differently with their pups, nor that mistakes made either during breeding selection or the first 2 months of life won’t impact the pups into adulthood. In my opinion, (and there is good science to back this up) there is priceless value in paying better attention to both breeding selection and the early raising of LGD pups. Arguably, with better breeding selection and more thorough socialization in early life, we would have more success and less work to do with the them afterwards. Fixing early mistakes and deficient genetics is not something that the average owner is prepared to do – nor is it always successful for seasoned professionals. The early period of a pup’s life is so critical to their ability to weather the maturing phases, albeit not quite as important as resilient and appropriate genetics. For example, no matter how you treat a working bred herding dog during early time of their life, you will not turn them into a successful LGD without a fight – and it is highly unlikely to happen even then. You also cannot easily turn a timid pup into a confident guardian, nor can you easily convince an overly aggressive pup with poor self control to direct and control their instincts in a more appropriate manner.

One thing we settlers often forget here in NA, due to our shallow experience living with dogs, is how vitally important groupings (packs) are to shaping our dogs to working success. We are enamored with the solitary dog trope more often than not, romanticizing the dog as solitary creatures capable of being all things to us. Apart from hunting dogs (who are rarely required to do complex behaviors outside of periodic hunting excursions), we keep most of our dogs singularly or only in pairs . This is not reflective of how our working LGDs were raised historically, and still are quite often today in their countries of origin. The “pack” or group, typically familial, plays as vital a role in the shaping of a good working LGD: as does the shepherd, their family and sometimes the village as a whole. Coppinger himself acknowledged a few years ago that his observational skills regarding raising and training LGDs overseas were greatly lacking. He now attributes the success of the LGDs overseas to this pastorally communal influence on the pups, both in terms of genetics and environment. It’s unfortunate that he has chosen to only acknowledge this when pressured, preferring to continue the illusion that what he did for early LGDs on this continent was a good thing.

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Two Armenian Gampr pups share the proceeds of a recent lamb slaughter by their shepherd. Photo credit: Rohana Mayer 2015

The other thing I have spoken about before in this blog is how our westernized canine handling and body language skills are not of the highest order. We struggle to relate to our dogs, as evidenced by the sheer number of failed and struggling dog/human pairings we currently have.  The exception to this misunderstanding is with working herding and gun dogs, as we have a long and strong history of working with them. Outside of this sphere, however, we struggle hard to adapt our interaction and observational skills. Nowhere is this more prominent than with LGDs. I cannot count the number of times I have had to encourage owners and trainers to listen more, give more freedom and space to LGDs – our natural default is always to micromanage and to be very heavy handed. Successful relationship requires the realization that we are only one side of the equation and further,  that everything we do affects the other side. In other words, everything we do – both consciously and unconsciously – affects our dogs and the ultimate satisfaction of the relationship. When we approach our dogs to work with them, it is always better to be thoughtful and to act carefully than to be rash and risk making more of a mess than is there already. With LGDs especially, as in many dog types with a longer arc of maturity, making a training plan that focuses on the long term and allows for latent learning is the way to go. Quite often, I won’t train or interfere daily, choosing to allow the times of training I do have to be very targeted, incremental and to allow for periods in between for the dog to absorb the information. This works well, as the dogs tend to make large learning leaps between sessions. This also keeps both of us from becoming frustrated with each other or bored with rote learning.

If we can start from a place where we acknowledge our inherent deficiencies when it comes to understanding and handling these dogs, we will always be in a better position to do the right thing by them. If we can open our minds to learn from those who have the historical knowledge of LGDs, we will do even better.

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  1. Choose your pup carefully.

This is the one thing that is the most important piece advice I can offer. So many problems can be prevented by just taking the time to choose the right pup. Unlike many others, I am not a proponent of certain breeds over others, nor do I care whether a pup is from registered parents. Some of the best dogs I have encountered and owned are from cross litters of LGD breeds. Some of the worst are from registered purebred breeders. Conversely, I believe that consistent, “pure” breeding helps us to retain certain characteristics, so it is of value. After years of experience, I am thoroughly convinced that a good dog can be found in almost any circumstance, but that most people have trouble sorting out how to evaluate that. So, choose pups from working parents who themselves show good LGD characteristics. They should be stable dogs, not quick to strike at their owners. They should have been treated well, with fairness and access to all they need in terms of food/shelter/water/vet care. If they don’t receive this currently, it will have changed their character in a negative way.

Watch the parents of the pups for signs of health problems and ask a lot of questions about their character. Are they showing signs of chronic pain? Are they watchful, alert? Do they roam? Do they appear to be in general good health? Does the breeder have vet records and are they willing to share with you? Remember that dogs who live outside and defend against predators won’t look the same as pampered house pets, but they shouldn’t appear sick or emaciated.

How do the pups look? Are they also showing signs of good health? How many survived in the litter and what happened to those who didn’t? Some mortality is to be expected, but it can also indicate genetic problems such as high levels of inbreeding. Are they active and curious? Are there some who look well but others who don’t? Are some cowering in the corner? This can indicate unmitigated temperament problems.

Where are the pups kept? Coppinger-style rearing typically shows itself here first – the pups are kept in smaller areas away from people or in with the stock (with no escape) from day 1. Neither option is good and leads to insecurity in the pups. Have they been handled? If so, how much? Have they been exposed to children, cars, other people, off farm or household noises? How important are these things to you?

Have the pups had any worming or vaccinations? These are things that aren’t deal breakers necessarily, but very good information to have. Pups with heavy loads of parasites will have a “potbellied” appearance and will not look generally healthy. They can be overly hungry while still appearing undernourished. Pups with external parasites will be itchy or appear uncomfortable. Their coat will not be glossy and they may have red patches on their skin and missing hair. While these things are fixable, living like this will affect the character of the pup. Some parasites like ringworm are zoonotic, meaning that they are transmissible to humans.  There are also very serious diseases that vaccinations prevent, like distemper and parvo. Parvo especially is difficult and expensive to treat and causes long term effects. It is also highly contagious.

How and what are the pups fed? While this is perhaps less important a consideration, it is good information to have. Communally fed pups, especially after weaning, tend to have more problems with resource guarding (RG) later on. Underfed pups will also tend to have problems with RG. This is not insurmountable, but it’s an important consideration. The type of food they are fed could also cause problems later on or indicate an issue; LGDs were selected to subsist on low protein, high carb food stuffs. There is evidence that too high of a protein or caloric content in food (causing pups to grow rapidly) can lead to hip dysplasia later on, as does breeding for large pups over athletically sound pups. Further, if pups or parents have to be kept on a certain restrictive diet, this can indicate allergies or intolerances, things that can become costly to maintain and ultimately undermine a dog’s working effectiveness. There is sufficient indication that allergies and intolerances have a genetic component and definitely go hand in hand with high levels of inbreeding. Take any information given to you about restrictions as a red flag that there could be costly health problems in the future. Your dog will also have a shortened working life span and perhaps a shortened life span overall.

Have the pups been exposed to livestock and if so, which kind and how? It goes without saying that if you want a working dog, ideally you should get that working dog from a place where that work is done. This doesn’t mean that you can’t find a working pup from a breeder who doesn’t work their dogs or from a rescue where the working ability can’t be tested, but those would be decisions that require extra caution and that carry more risk. Pups should be introduced to stock gradually or at least with extra forethought to ensure they cannot be harmed or harm. They should be supervised at least part of the time to ensure that their interactions are appropriate and safe. The breeder should be willing to correct overzealous pups and spend the time helping more timid pups gain confidence.

Choose the pup with the correct temperament for your needs. Sometimes breeders will insist on making this choice for you, but they should only do so if they are aware of the complexities behind puppy/owner matches and after they have asked you questions about your current situation, experience and future plans. While puppy temperament is not always predictive of the adult character of that dog, it does give a lot of information about who that pup is right now. Much will go into the shaping of that dog’s character as they grow, but their needs are evident very early on. Is the pup more timid? Then they will need to gain confidence and have patient guidance. Is the pup bold and enjoys taking risks? Then that pup will need to learn risk assessment and firmer leadership during the process of maturity. Be reasonable and practical about your abilities and your expectations when choosing.

Choose the right gender. If this is your first pup, then this choice will revolve around personal preference more so than if you already have one or more LGDs working for you. If you have other intact dogs on the property or living nearby and not contained, that may also affect your decision. If you plan to breed someday, that will also be a determining factor. Keeping an intact dog through to maturity is not without risk or extra work, and should be done with that in mind. That said, inform yourself about the risks of early spay and neuter, especially for male dogs. Males are cheaper to fix (sterilize) and do not carry the risk of turning up pregnant, but they can be the cause of unwanted litters even in your neighborhood if they wander. They can be more laid back, but often don’t coexist well with other males, especially if kept intact. Females can be more intense, but again, the individual differences of each dog are more important than gender stereotypes. Both females and males will be more distracted during times of heat and both may be less willing to get rid of any opposite sex stray that happens on to your property. They may also attract wild canines, but hybrid litters are less common than many people believe. Consider as well the eventual composition of your working LGD pairings or groupings. If you have a male already, it is wiser to get a female pup if you want them to work well together over time. The opposite is true. This is not to say that pairs of females or males don’t work out – in fact, they can be some of the best pairings if done thoughtfully. Two pups raised together or a young pup with a same sex older LGD are two of the easiest ways to accomplish this. Same sex pairings do require more hierarchy conflicts over time, as do groupings. Some breeds/types will be more prone to conflict than others. A certain amount of comfort with social conflict is required on the part of the owner.

Will the breeder provide support for you and if so, is there a laundry list of requirements that you need to follow in order to receive the support? Personally, I refuse to buy puppies from breeders who insist on a lot of control over the pup after money exchanges hands. A handful of requirements is always fine, and I prefer a breeder who stands behind what they produce, but I also believe strongly in the autonomy of an owner over their dog. In purebred breeding, the control from a breeder can be a indicator that health and temperament is a concern in the parents/lines. Do not assume that breeders will tell you all there is to know about a pup and their background. If a breeder is more concerned about telling how awful every other breeder is than about their own program, this is also a red flag. If they claim that they have never had any problems with their breeding program or with their pups, and if all faults are blamed on the owners, then this is also a good indication that not all is as it seems. Some breeders are willing to provide support only as long as you agree with them and their methods. It is wise to find other outlets for support as well as your breeder.

Most importantly when choosing a pup is to match the breed or type to your expectations and needs. Apart from the general warning to keep your expectations appropriate to life stages (do not expect a young pup to protect your animals/property from predators or an adolescent pup to get their instincts sorted on their own), it is so very important to determine what your ideal LGD would look like. What behavior appeals to you most? What sort of human traffic do you have on your property? What infrastructure does your operation have? Do you have small children and do you want them to interact with the dog? LGDs should be excellent with children of all sizes, but a rambunctious pup will struggle to behave appropriately with very small children. If a more assertive pup needs strong guidance, this will be harder to maintain with younger children. Do you have a business on your property or a large extended family? Do you want the pup to grow to protect property, livestock or a combination of both? Will wandering be a problem and if so, can you install and reinforce fencing? Some breeds/types are more likely to bond to stock over territory. Others accept strange humans on their home turf more easily than others. Some view people on the same level of threat as a wild predator. Be sure your comfort with liability matches the predisposition of the dog you buy.

(the second post in this series can be found here)